By Fr. Theodore Stylianopoulos

In a year of intense political campaigning we hear a lot about freedom. We know that all people yearn for freedom. Americans cherish freedom more than others perhaps because they have enjoyed the privilege for so many generations. The birth of the nation arose from liberation from British rule and the re-birth of the nation out of the Civil War with the official abolition of slavery. Its westward expansion by “rugged individualism” also served to exalt freedom as a special American value.

On March 25th our community of St. George celebrated the great Feast of the Annunciation followed by the observance of Greek Independence Day in the church hall. The Feast of the Annunciation marks the announcement of the birth of Christ to the Virgin Mary. This is the good news of the coming of Christ to the world as liberator from the power of sin and the forces of evil–for those who choose to believe in Him and follow His way. Greek Independence Day marks the liberty of the Greek people from nearly four hundred years of Ottoman rule (ca. 1453-1830 AD). These two festivals, one religious and the other cultural, lead us to ask: What is true freedom according to the Hellenic tradition and the Orthodox Christian faith? How are the two related? How can they possibly enrich our views and conversations about freedom in the American context?

The Hellenic tradition had its foundation in ancient Greek thought, philosophy, and politics reaching its zenith in democracy–literally the “rule of the demos or people” through the exercise of personal freedom and the casting of individual votes. But freedom was understood, properly speaking, not at all as license to do whatever a person desired or could possibly achieve by financial, political, or military resources, to suit one’s own selfish pursuits. Rather true freedom, for both the individuals and the community, was grounded in the practice of four major or “cardinal” virtues: dikaiosyne/δικαιοσυνη (justice), phronesis/φρόνησις (prudence), sophrosyne/σωφροσύνη (temperance), and andreia/ ανδρεια (courage).

Dikaiosyne (Δικαιοσυνη) has to do with equitable laws which were to be applied equitably for all the citizens of the state. (This did not apply to slaves, however, a regrettable stigma in ancient Greek democracy. One might ask, are there still “slaves” under modern democratic systems in the world … ?)

Phronesis (Φρόνησις) has to do with insight, right thinking, and wisdom in decision making related to personal and communal life.

Sophrosyne (Σωφροσύνη) has to do with moderation, temperance, self-control, and right balance between extremes of indulgence and abstinence. Mithen agha (Μηδὲν ἄγα) –“nothing in excess”–was the catch phrase.

Andreia (Aνδρεια) has to do with courage, bravery, fortitude, a heroic spirit or action in practicing the cardinal virtues and other noble ideals pertaining to what is true, good, and beautiful.

The Orthodox Christian tradition has its foundation in the Bible, especially the New Testament in Christ, as lived and interpreted in the long historical life of the Orthodox Church. In this tradition true freedom, individual and communal, arises out of the practice of strikingly different virtues of which four may be highlighted: agape/αγάπη (selfless love), eleos/έλεος (mercy), thysia/θυσία (sacrifice), and diakonia/διακονία (service).

Agape/Αγάπη is a special kind of love resembling God’s love which is non-acquisitive, unselfish, and altruistic. St Paul has given the classic definition of this love in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13. In Orthodox thought, this kind of love, agape, is the sum and goal of life which achieves true freedom and is to be lived finally and eternally with God.

Eleos/Ἔλεος is a form of compassion based on love–a word already well-attested in the Old Testament and translated as “mercy” or “loving kindness.” It is a deep disposition of mercy and forgiveness toward one another just as God has mercy and forgives us in order to be liberated from such passions as anger, grudges, and all the other baggage of past grievances.

Thysia/Θυσία finds its highest expression in the self-sacrifice of Christ in His whole-hearted obedience to God for the salvation of the world. Christian freedom very much depends on voluntary acts of self-sacrifice for the benefit of positive human relationships in marriage, family, and community.

Diakonia/ Διακονία embraces all kinds of Christian acts of service to others and especially Church ministries such as pastoral care, teaching, philanthropy and the like. These acts of service are specifically Christian when accomplished for the love of and in the name of Christ, our beloved Lord and Savior.

How are these two perspectives of freedom related to each other? In the classic Greek tradition the achievement of the four cardinal virtues, and the attainment of true freedom, were viewed as an achievement of human capacity through education and self-discipline. In the Orthodox Christian tradition the achievement of the above highlighted virtues, and the enjoyment of true freedom, are viewed as an attainment of grace, a gift of God, along with receptive human will and sincere human striving.

We may observe that the Greek way was the best way insofar as human beings could conceive and attain. The Orthodox Christian way is the best way insofar as the grace of God can accomplish with the cooperation of human beings. The two ways are distinct and different, but not opposed or contradictory. Both can be joined together to work out fundamental expressions of true freedom in personal and communal life. Both can be illuminating in the civic and political conversation about the privilege of freedom in our contemporary American context.

Editor’s Note: Father Ted delivered this message at the Greek Independence Day observation on March 25, 2012 and it was printed in its entirety in the May 2012 bulletin. Fr. Ted’s “Reflections on Freedom” is so fitting for Independence Day that I thought it was worth re-printing for those who missed it and for those of us who want to hear it again. Thank you, Father Ted for your words of wisdom.

« »